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(Diss) Connecting

In his 2017 book In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, Byung-Chul Han examines the challenges of working in a global economy. Concerned about employee burnout, Han writes,

Even though we are now free from the machines that enslaved and exploited people during the industrial age, digital apparatuses are installing new constraints, new slavery. Because of their mobility, they make possible exploitation that proves even more efficient by transforming every space into a workplace—and all time into working hours. The freedom of movement is switching over into a fatal compulsion to work everywhere. (34)

According to Han, “a fatal compulsion to work everywhere” leaves employees stressed out and sleep deprived. During the industrial age, workers suffered untold hardships, Han says, but at least they could clock out and leave the factory behind for the night. Today, turned into mini international business machines, many workers drag the factory home with them on phones, tablets and laptops.

The amount of information—be it personal, social or work-related—stored on our “digital apparatuses,” as Han calls them, boggles the mind. Jean Baudrillard called people’s compulsion to collect and catalogue every last piece of data “obscene.”

With a flair for the dramatic, Baudrillard writes in his 1987 book The Ecstasy of Communication that “today there is a pornography of information and communication, a pornography of circuits and networks, of functions and objects in their legibility, availability, regulation, forced signification, capacity to perform, connection, polyvalence, their free expression” (26-27).

Today every event, every interaction, every idea, every word must mean something unequivocally. Earth and all its satellites must speak. We can’t go off the grid of “forced signification.” No one has the right to remain silent. We must answer every email and text, share our thoughts on social media, express ourselves on blogs. Non-tweeters risk ex-communication.

Seventy-five years before the release of the first iPhone, Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran just wanted to be left alone. Writing was anti-social media for Cioran, who proclaims in his 1934 book On the Heights of Despair in full pessimist mode:

As far as I am concerned, I resign from humanity. I no longer want to be, nor can still be, a man. What should I do? Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable? Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and aesthetic ideals? It’s all too little. I renounce my humanity even though I may find myself alone. But am I not already alone in this world from which I no longer expect anything? (43-44)

I admire Cioran’s defiant spirit, but short of committing suicide, no one can resign from humanity. We can quit a corporate job, but we can’t quit seeking the company of others.

There has to be a middle ground between being hyper-connected—to our families, colleagues, (Facebook) friends, Instagram followers—and being totally isolated, as Cioran might have envisioned it. Anyone who finds this middle ground might, with the right connections, sell millions of self-help books and never need a “real job” again.

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The Nine Billion Names Of God

In The Perfect Crime Jean Baudrillard references Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” to set up his critique of virtual reality and our desire to actualize the world in its totality.

Clarke’s story centers on a group of Tibetan monks who for centuries have been transcribing with great care the nine billion names of God. Logging the final name, we’re told, will trigger the end of the world.

It’s a tiresome task so the monks call in technicians from IBM. Computers finish the job in a few months.

On page 27 of The Perfect Crime Baudrillard describes man’s fate: “As they walk back down into the valley, the technicians, who did not really believe in the prophecy, are aghast to see the stars going out one by one.”

I believe the monks not only knew their project would end the world but actively wished for it.

The rise of IBM and its solution-focused IT professionals facilitated a quicker exit. Computers relieved the monks of their duties. Ethics and the Middle Way no match for algorithms and HTML.

Computers relieve us all from the burden of being human. Tools for the realization of every fantasy, computers fulfill our secret wish to disappear. Social media posts serving as our collective suicide note.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops communicate for us, but not necessarily on our behalf. “I’ll text you,” we say, as if the text creates you—a “you” we never meet. If the medium is the message, today the message is singular: “Show me your text and I’ll show you mine.”

In the valley of the shadow of tech we are all monks—all “IBMers”—exchanging the pleasure of face-to-face interaction for the stupor of screen-to-screen manipulation.

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